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The Tacoma News Tribune: "Allegations intensify about owl plan"

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October 1, 2007; The conclusion by a group of independent scientists that a draft recovery plan for the northern spotted owl was “deeply flawed” has further fueled allegations that the proposal was manipulated by political appointees who were determined to boost logging in Northwest forests.

By Les Blumenthal

WASHINGTON – The conclusion by a group of independent scientists that a draft recovery plan for the northern spotted owl was “deeply flawed” has further fueled allegations that the proposal was manipulated by political appointees who were determined to boost logging in Northwest forests.

The peer review by outside scientists, requested and paid for by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, concluded that the recovery plan disregarded 20 years of research about the owl, which lives in the region’s remaining stands of old-growth timber, and would result in reduced efforts to protect the bird and its habitat.

The review is attracting attention on Capitol Hill. This week, Democratic lawmakers will ask Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to withdraw the recovery plan and appoint a committee to write a new one.

“We are especially concerned the peer review has produced unanimous findings that the draft recovery plan is not based on the best available science and will not ensure recovery of the species,” says the letter, circulated by U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, and signed by 19 other lawmakers.

The letter suggests the recovery plan may have been “tampered with by high-ranking officials within the administration,” including Julie MacDonald, a former deputy assistant interior secretary. She resigned in May amid allegations that she had interfered with and overruled scientists working on recovery plans for various endangered species.

MacDonald was a member of the Washington Oversight Committee, which apparently instructed the spotted owl recovery team to add an option to its draft that would allow for more logging in the Northwest’s forests, the congressional letter said. A related report from the administration called for reducing habitat considered critical to the owl’s survival by almost one-fourth.

Other members of the Washington Oversight Committee included Mark Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist who as undersecretary at the Agriculture Department oversees the U.S. Forest Service, and Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett.

“The politics trumped the science, and independent scientists have now blown the whistle,” Inslee said. “White House fingerprints are all over this (recovery plan). This administration will distort science to get more gas out of the Rockies, more oil out of the Bering Sea and more timber out of the forests of the Northwest.”

Among the 20 lawmakers who had signed the letter were Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, the chairman of the House interior appropriations subcommittee, said he spoke with Kempthorne and top officials at Fish & Wildlife about the peer review’s concerns.

“They swore it would be done right,” Dicks said of his conversation with Kempthorne and others. “As chairman, I will do everything I can to ensure we have the best science available. If we don’t have the best science, I will step in.”

‘WE AREN’T DONE YET’

Fish & Wildlife Service officials declined to comment on the peer review of the recovery plan, conducted by the Society of Conservation Biology and the American Ornithologists’ Union.

“We aren’t done yet,” said Joan Jewett, a spokeswoman for the Fish & Wildlife Service’s regional office in Portland, Ore. “We want the final plan to be based on the best science.”

A final recovery plan is expected to be released next spring, Jewett said.

The spotted owl, protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, became a symbol for efforts to halt logging in the old-growth forests of the Northwest and touched off a confrontation between environmentalists and the timber industry that lingers today.

By some estimates, between 80 percent and 90 percent of the region’s old-growth has already been cut.

In 1994, the Clinton administration released its Northwest Forest Plan, which restricted logging on roughly 7 million acres of federal lands. Though Clinton administration officials estimated that their plan would allow for the logging of about 1 billion board-feet of timber a year in Washington and Oregon, only about 300 million board-feet a year has been harvested.

Meanwhile, the population of the spotted owl, especially in its northern range, has continued to decline.

The draft recovery plan identified competition from the barred owl as the primary threat facing the spotted owl, not the loss of habitat as previously thought.

The barred owl is not native to the Northwest, but has moved west from states in the East as the forests have been logged. The barred owl is less selective in its habitat than the spotted owl and more aggressive than its cousin in competing for habitat and food.

BAD SCIENCE, RESEARCHERS SAY

The scientists who conducted the peer review said basing the recovery plan on eliminating barred owls was unsupported by scientific studies.

“Habitat loss from timber harvest remains the sole threat for which there is extensive supporting scientific information,” wrote one scientist. “In contrast, little scientific information on potential adverse effects of barred owl range expansion is currently available. Primary emphasis on the barred owl is misplaced at this time because of a lack of supporting evidence.”

Another scientist said that while other factors could affect the spotted owl, they are “at risk of extinction” because of habitat loss.

Still another said the draft recovery plan “significantly weakened” previous owl recovery efforts, and “it’s not hard to conclude” the latest proposal reflected “pressure to relax restrictions on logging.”

Dominick DellaSala, executive director of the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy based in Ashland, Ore., and a member of the team that wrote the recovery plan, said the outside review confirmed what he already knew.

“The peer review slammed it,” DellaSala said. “Every dart hit the target.”

DellaSala said the recovery plan team had only six months to produce a draft, some of the top owl scientists were not included and there was clearly interference from political appointees. The Northwest Forest Plan, meanwhile, is a 50- to 100-year plan, and even though after 13 years owl populations are on the decline, it eventually will work, he said.

“There is no reason to go into these old-growth stands,” DellaSala said. “This is bringing us back to the timber wars of the 1980s and 1990s, and no one wants to go there. This is setting up another train wreck.”